Class sizes raise concerns for Mich. parents, districts, teachers
Korie Wilkins was happy with the small class sizes at her son's elementary school for the last three years. Then the Rochester Community Schools parent heard a number this month that stopped her in her tracks: 30.
"There are 30 kids in his class," Wilkins said. "He has never had more than in the low-20s."
Despite pleas from parents and local school officials who want the class sizes lowered to improve student academic achievement, Michigan still has no cap on the number of students in a classroom in K-12 schools or reduction programs to reduce crowded classrooms.
Educators say they struggle to maintain low numbers — citing factors from budgetary limits to a statewide teacher shortage to fluctuations in enrollment — and find themselves performing a balancing act to level out classrooms and buildings.
Wilkins said her son has had individualized attention from teachers in the Oakland County district, something that is more likely when class sizes are smaller, educators say.
"His teacher is amazing. I have every confidence in her handling 30 third-graders," Wilkins said. "But there is a literacy push. ...You are adding eight or nine kids at this critical literacy grade."
The concerns over overcrowded classrooms come amid a dire educational outlook for Michigan. According to recent analyses of national testing data, Michigan students are performing among the bottom 10 percent of states.
The state has invested efforts in improving third-grade reading ahead of 2020 when under Michigan's reading and retention law, school officials will have the power to retain struggling third-graders if they read a grade level behind on the state’s assessment of English language arts.
Randy Liepa, superintendent of the Wayne Regional Educational Service Agency, said class sizes are managed like other educational resources for a district.
"Districts look at the budget they have available and determine where they can best utilize their resources to improve student achievement," Liepa said. "They consider lowering class size as a best practice. …The challenge is with limited resources, they have to make choices."
Class size limits are set via teacher contract and vary from district to district.
According to teacher contract data reviewed by The Detroit News, class size maximums in Michigan tend to be lowest in grades K-3, starting at 18. They increase in grades 4-5 and are the largest in grades 6-12, often surpassing 30 students.
Joshua M. Cowen, an associate professor of education policy at Michigan State University, gathered data on class sizes at 518 Michigan school districts from the last one to five years as part of a larger study on collective bargaining agreements.
Cowen said negotiated class sizes in those districts range from 18 to 35 students in grade 4 with maximums from 22 to 35 students.
In grade 8, negotiated sizes were 18 to 36 with maximums of 22 to 37. And in grades 9-12, it was 15 to 36 students with maximums from 24 to 37.
"There is not a ton of variation," Cowen said. "We know smaller classes are a priority for teachers and the union. It tends to be something parents want, too."
Cowen said class size ranges have not changed much over the last decade based on data he and his team at MSU’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative collected in the project.
Compared to California and Washington, two other states studied by the MSU team, Michigan fell in the middle for its average negotiated class size and average maximum class size for fourth, eighth and high school.
For example, in eighth grade, California's average negotiated class size was 30.2, Michigan's was 28.8 and Washington's was 28.9.
Cowen said his takeaway from the research on labor contracts is class size is a dollars and cents issue.
"It would take a huge influx of money statewide to meaningfully change these numbers," he said.
Most school districts review class sizes on a daily basis at the start of the new school year. After the state's fall Count Day on Oct. 3, some begin the process of balancing over-sized classrooms and transferring teachers or students.
Rochester Community Schools officials said they diligently monitor class sizes but must also work within current budgetary and physical limitations. Class sizes for third grade at Hampton Elementary School are 27, 30 and 29, and include para-professional support.
There is no teacher shortage or staffing change at Hampton Elementary that would impact class sizes, RCS district spokeswoman Lori Grein said.
"The bottom line is that we don’t get children in perfect numbers. Class sizes can vary each year at each grade level. We diligently monitor the sizes but are ever mindful of our budgetary and physical limitations," she said. "There is currently no physical space available for another classroom at Hampton Elementary School."
Hampton’s enrollment fluctuates more than any school in the district, most likely due to the increased number of apartment rentals in the area, Grein said.
"Rochester Community Schools remains deeply concerned about class sizes," she said. "In fact, we monitor enrollment on a daily basis. Count Day is on Oct. 3 so we will have a better indication of solid numbers for the year after that time."
Push for state cap
In Detroit, school officials are reviewing class sizes and will begin student or teacher transfers to balance the numbers. Complaints about large class sizes have been a hallmark of the Detroit Public Schools Community District, with one kindergarten class having 55 pupils in 2011 while the district was under state-controlled emergency management.
Terrence Martin, executive vice president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said he wants Michigan lawmakers to propose a cap on class sizes to address the problem in his district and statewide.
"I think it’s got to be codified. When we talk about increasing test scores and productivity of students, it begins with class sizes. It's something that Lansing can control," Martin said. "It puts the onus on the state and says we are serious about improving education in state where we are often the lowest" in performance.
In Detroit, Martin said class sizes currently range from a low of 15 students up to the 40s and 50s in elementary schools. Surveys are being sent to teachers this month to allow the union to compile data reports, he said.
"The district is in the process of reorganizing those. They (the district) are trying to attract staff to address larger classrooms," Martin said.
One Michigan school district has found a way to reduce its class sizes.
Teacher Erin Wenrick's fifth-grade class has 24 students this school year and the veteran teacher could not be happier.
That number was made possible when Plymouth-Canton Community Schools used $1.5 million from Wayne County's education enhancement millage to hire 40 teachers last year to reduce class sizes across K-12.
"I have had 31 students every year probably for the past decade or more," said Wenrick who teachers at Tonda Elementary School. "I am able to look at a child and pull into smaller groups. I have the ability to see more growth and that is very satisfying. That is why we become teachers."
The district of 17,400 students spent the money in a concerted effort to make class sizes smaller by at least one pupil per section and to address enrollment increases. According to its teacher contract, class sizes for grades 4-5 can be as large as 30.
There is substantial research linking class size reduction to improved student achievement. The Center for Public Education, an initiative of the National School Boards Association, found that smaller class sizes can boost student achievement, particularly for minority and low-income students.
Federal funding available
According to the National Education Association, Michigan ranked ninth highest among states for the average number of students enrolled per teacher — 17.5 — in public elementary and secondary schools for the 2016-17 school year. The national U.S. average was 16.03 that year.
Officials with the Michigan Department of Education say the state's federal education plan does not include class size goals, and Michigan has no general education class-size requirements for K-12 public schools.
According to state education department spokesman Bill DiSessa, the department has state and federal funding sources available to districts to use for class-size reductions.
About 84 districts used state funds in 2016-17 school year to reduce sizes. Sixteen districts used federal Title I dollars last school year to reduce class sizes.
"The research supporting the use of funds for reduced class size as an effective strategy is minimal, but we allow it, asking that districts monitor student academic progress of students who have been in classes using this strategy," DiSessa said.
Michigan's pupil-teacher ratio — calculated by dividing the fall pupil count by the total number of K-12 teachers — was 23:1 last school year.
In Detroit, the state's largest district, the number was 31:1 for the year 2016-17, the most recent year data was available. In other districts, such as Berkley School District, the ratio was 18:1.
The student-teacher ratio, however, does not actually measure the number of students in any particular classroom, according to Brian Jacob, a Walter H. Annenberg professor of education policy and professor of economics at the University of Michigan.
Jacob said the student-teacher ratio systematically understates class size because it includes specialized teachers who do not preside over a traditional classroom. It does not allow one to look separately by subject or grade level, or to identify particularly large classes, he said.
"There are lots of reasons it's hard to know class sizes without going over transcripts and rosters for second period 10th-grade algebra II," Jacob said. "Schoolwide averages are hard too. You can have classes with 40 and 10 and that could average out to 20."
Jacob and a team of researchers at the Education Policy Initiative at University of Michigan published a policy brief on class sizes for Michigan students in 2016, using classroom-level data that allowed the team look at the distribution of class sizes across the state
According to their findings, nearly one in 20 students in first-grade has a homeroom of 40 or more students. In seventh and ninth grades, more than one in 10 students had at least one class with 40 or more students.
The study found black students in ninth grade are more than three times as likely as their white peers to be in larger class sizes. Students receiving free or reduced lunch were 60 to 70 percent more likely to be in larger class sizes than their peers.
State Rep. Adam Zemke, D-Ann Arbor, vice chair of the House education reform committee, said Michigan schools are far over optimal class size numbers and past efforts to use incentives to lower class sizes have stalled.
"The bottom line is class size is a measurement and way of determining individual learning abilities in the classroom," Zemke said. "We all know 100 percent that individualized learning for students is key to improving academic achievement."
A teacher shortage in the state and Michigan's funding formula for K-12 contribute to class sizes growing, he said. Zemke said he is open to discuss a cap but would like more information on other states that have them.
"Until we take a very systemic approach to fixing funding, we are biting around the edges at best right now," Zemke said. "We haven’t structurally fixed the funding model. Until we do those things, it's not going to move the needle on class sizes."
Chris Wigent, executive director of the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators, said a cap to reduce class sizes, likely to be supported by most districts, would absolutely have to be accompanied by adequate, additional funding.
"If that funding is not included as part of the cap plan, we could not support," Wigent said. "The teacher shortage in Michigan is a very real issue, and a cap on class size could easily highlight the shortage even more and divide further between those districts that are able to secure enough quality teachers and those who are struggling to find enough teachers with the current class sizes."
In the Plymouth-Canton district, fifth-grade students Mia Avery and Kirsten Ellis said they had noticed the change in Wenrick's classroom with fewer students in class.
"I was with 31 kids (before). It was kind of crowded," said Kirsten, 10. "And it always got foggy and hot in the room. It didn't feel that good."
Mia said her fifth-grade class feels smaller this year. And both students said they are getting more time with their teacher compared with past years.
"I like it better. I like smaller groups better than bigger groups," said Mia,10. "We have more of a connection with our teacher."